Last Thursday my best friend and I cycled 36 miles from Guildford in Surrey to the Sussex coast – Shoreham-by-sea to be precise, along a bridleway known as the ‘Downs Link’. This path runs for most of its length along an old railway line, long since closed by Mr Beeching, which once connected Guildford to the sea and stopped off at many small villages along the way. Having once been a railway the path is for the most part very straight and flat, so is very easy to cycle and with hardly any roads ones concentration can be allowed to drift from steering to enjoying the surrounding countryside.
The day we had chosen was perfect; the weather was a sultry 23 degrees with barely a wisp of cloud in sight, the sun was baking the green fields and raising dust on the track. It helped that it was a weekday for it meant that the path was very quiet with few other cyclists or pedestrians, we nearly had the path to ourselves. The first section around Guildford was marvelously pleasant as the path follows the river Wey and its accompanying canal, with the thickly wooded North Downs peering down on the scene and long-boats and other dirigibles cruising placidly along the glass-flat water. We made good headway and set a fine pace, making ten miles before our first rest, which was actually lunch due to our late start (I blame the trains), we found a bench under the arch of an orange-bricked bridge (no longer in use and covered in plants growing out of the cracks) where we avidly consumed our scrummy luncheon.
At several points along this path we encountered the remnants of old stations; the sad, empty platforms sinking into moss and ivy but with the station name signs still clear and bearing quaint English village names such as Cranleigh, Bramley and Baynards. What was most interesting to see was the gradual change of the surrounding landscape as we journeyed southward; the path acts like a transect across the Wield starting with the Wey river catchment which turns into undulating wooded country, then larger agricultural fields open up the landscape. Further south still the woods get thicker before we entered the Low Wield which is characterised by flat, open land dotted with copses and thick hedges, rivers and streams squiggling through – with the whole view topped off by the South downs, brooding and majestic as they sit unmoving through the centuries.
Just outside Southwater we had a break at a pub that sat right next to the path, with great relish we consumed some cool fizzy pop and a chocolate bar, both of which succeeded in raising morale and energy as well as giving our legs a break (by now a deep-set ache was in them). Over the course of the long ride certain things began to get uncomfortable, the legs obviously, but also the spine did not take kindly to being hunched over the handle-bars, not to mention the painful chafing of the bike saddle (very nasty after 36 miles!). The discomfort did not prevent me from noticing wildlife along the route though, now a speeding bike is not the best way of seeing or hearing any nature but I still managed to spot a few things. Near the beginning I heard the clear, resonant voice of a Nightingale (the poet’s bird) emanating from a thicket in a ditch – though I could not see the creature itself it was great to know it was there. Blackcaps, Buzzards and Swifts all made an appearance or two along the way, along with a few Swallows, Song thrushes and the trilling of a Yellowhammer. Butterflies were also common, though tricky to ID when at speed, yet I still noted lots of Red Admirals, Speckled Woods and a few Whites, seeing as we are talking of insects I cannot fail to mention the countless midges which unwittingly entered my mouth, nose and eyes on many occasions.
I had an exciting near-crash experience when we were on a part of the track that leaves the railway, we had just scaled a hefty hill only to go straight back down the other side (which was ridiculously steep, had a curve in it and was on gravel). I went first and only managed to avoid being thrown from my bike by sheer will and good balance – the bike itself was shaking and swerving and skidding and going about 200mph, it was a very near thing and the nettle-filled ditch that I had only just avoided falling into looked almost disappointed. Apart form that the whole ride went very peacefully and became especially attractive when we got close to the South Downs, the land below them was very flat and mostly gorgeous water-meadows showing a fantastic view along the escarpment of the downs. The last five miles (after passing through the downs along the Adur valley) were a tad monotonous and without any decent views so my brain had nothing to distract it from the pain in my legs and other parts. We made it to the very end of the path eventually, stopping in the center of Shoreham, right next to the mouth of the river by a small bridge, it had been a wonderful ride, the very definition of a fine Summer’s day, we had seen some beautiful Sussex and Surrey countryside and given ourselves a jolly good bit of exercise – I recommend it! (Do make sure you wear some padded underwear though!)